Monday, January 17, 2011
Bubbly Bicycle Works and Lloyd Cycles Recreate the Full Service Bike Shop
Bicycle frame building was a lost art in the US for half a century, but it has been resurgent in the last 10 years. Owen Lloyd, who co-owns Blue City Cycles with Clare Knipper, gave the revival a foothold in Chicago 5 years ago, when he founded Bubbly Bicycle Works, a frame builder’s co-operative in Bridgeport’s historic Central Manufacturing District. Chicago’s frame building scene is just beginning to percolate, but in other cities, it is blooming as a new industry.
Owen describes building bike frames as the logical outcome of a career he started working in other people’s bike shops. He learned mechanics of gears, brakes and bearing systems, then he learned to build wheels, a patient craft with some mystique about it. And after he’d built a few wheels he was happy with, he saw an article about frame building in a magazine, and thought “Well, that’s the next step.”
He took a 2 week course in frame building at the United Bike Institute (UBI) in Ashland, Oregon. “Two weeks gives you the fundamentals. The rest of it is self taught,” Owen says. “That’s the difficult part.” You assemble your equipment and perfect your technique by building scores of bike frames.
Out of UBI, Owen found a workshop space in a renovated warehouse at 1048 West 37th Street, a small business incubator formally known as the Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, and more informally as Bubbly Dynamics, after Bubbly Creek, which flows nearby. Bubbly Dynamics was still under renovation when Owen moved in. In the early days, he built walls for rent.
Today, there are 7 members of the Bubbly Bicycle Works frame builders co-op. Each member pays $200 to share the 900 square foot workshop. The rent buys them a commercial address and a bench in a code compliant manufacturing space, with a loading dock and a freight elevator.
In the absence of apprenticeships, or even factory jobs where a young builder might build frames for a couple years before launching out on his own, access to the tools and experience of other co-op members may be one of the most important benefits the co-op has to offer.
“A lot of people hit a ceiling, working in a bike shop,” Owen says. “Then they go on to get an adult job.” That ceiling reflects the industry as it is in the US today, but not as it has always been. In 2009, there were just under 15 million bikes sold in the US, in 2008 there were 18 million, but about 96% of them were built overseas.
In the early 20th century, retail and fabrication were not so separate. Lake Street was a hub of bike manufacture, and frame repair remained an integral part of the business of many bike shops for decades. That changed after World War II, as automobiles multiplied, and manufacturers chased efficiencies overseas.
But it changed more slowly in Europe and in Britain. Owen’s family is from the UK, he slips into a Welsh accent when he’s talking to his parents. He says post-war England saw a boom in bicycles that American didn’t, partly because the post war recovery was slower there, and bicycles held their place as a means of transport, as well as a vehicle of sport.
In the 1970s, a new generation of American cyclists travelled to Britain to race and to tour. They were exposed to bike shops where building was still an active craft. Today, some of the best known US builders went to England in the 70s specifically to learn the trade. Others taught themselves.
Andy Newlands of Terra Nova Cycles taught himself, but turned to British companies for materials. “There were some big companies making bikes in the US – Schwinn, Huffy – but they weren’t of much assistance.” He bought his double butted tubing through the Reynolds company of Birmingham.
Ron Boi of RRB Cycles in Kenilworth taught himself, and by the early 1980s he was building 100 frames a year. He says at that point, roughly half his business was frame building, the other half was retail. But when titanium frames hit the market, he decided not to acquire a whole new set of equipment. Now the young racers all want carbon fiber frames. He still builds 2 or 3 steel frames a year – for new customers with a taste for traditional steel frames, and in at least one case, for an old customer who couldn’t afford a custom steel frame 30 years ago, but who came back when he could.
The United Bike Institute, founded in 1981, began teaching frame building just over 20 years ago. UBI’s frame building program grew steadily even as the English and European frame builders were dying out. Newlands says they were casualties of the mountain bike craze. Building a steel frame road bike is a craft sometimes compared with jewelry making. Steel tubing is fitted together with lugs and brazed with a flame-torch and a copper bead. Mountain bike frames can be welded together by coarser methods, in fact they can be welded robotically.
But UBI’s instruction in the more delicate methods attracts new students every year. John Baxter, UBI’s Administrator, says that at first, UBI taught 15-20 frame-building students a year; now, they teach 100-120, and the students come from all over the world -- from Canada to Korea to Britain. “As far as we know, there is no place in Europe or Asia teaching classes in frame building,” Baxter says.
He says master builders sometimes take on students, “but you learn one guy’s technique.” UBI’s course was developed jointly by some of the best builders in the United States. “We stress that we’ve developed a good process for learning to build a frame, but after that, you’ll develop your own style of working, of making the process more efficient.”
There are now frame builders trained at UBI, honing their skills and developing their style, in workshops and garages across the US. In 2005, there were enough to create a trade show. The first North American Handmade Bicycle Show was held in Houston Texas. It featured 23 exhibitors and drew 700 attendees.
Two years later, in 2007, there were 150 exhibitors and 7,200 attendees. In 2009, the NAHBS was restricting entry to builders who could prove they had staying power and insurance. Now, builders must have completed at least 50 frames, and have been in business for at least 2 years to exhibit at NAHBS.
Meanwhile, regional trade shows have been "multiplying like rabbits,” as Owen puts it. There has been talk of organizing one in the Midwest – the Twin Cities, Madison in Milwaukee all have the fledgling frame building scenes.
But the densest hub of custom frame building is still in UBI’s home state of Oregon. Andy Newlands is Secretary of the Oregon Bicycle Constructors Organization, a trade organization with a membership of 40 active frame builders. Newlands says they range in output from bigger companies, like Co-Motion and Bike Friday, which might each produce 1,000 frames a year, to smaller companies that might sell a dozen. He says he sells anywhere from 12 to 50 a year himself, depending on how much time he is able to devote to building them.
Portland alone is home to 25 of the Association’s members, and while statistics aren’t available, Newlands estimates they produce something in the neighborhood of 1,000 frames a year. That’s a lot of expensive product for a limited market to absorb. Some established builders, like Newlands, sell their frames internationally, with help from the internet. But it also sounds like the presence of frame builders helps build a local bike culture with an appetite for custom frames.
Baxter chuckles that the best frame builders are like rock stars. They are also a remarkably collaborative crowd. They often share space, tools and expertise. Newlands agrees, “That’s why the Builder’s Association works.” He attributes the collaborative spirit partly to the fact that as builders develop their own style, they tend to create a niche, so they don’t see themselves in direct competition with other builders. Meanwhile, at any given public ride in a city like Eugene, Baxter says you might spot a couple dozen custom frames.
A custom frame set from well known builders like Richard Sachs or Independent Fabrications costs between $2,000 and $9,000, without wheels or components. But custom bikes might be different from other expensive artisanal goods, like custom furniture, for instance, in that their customer base is defined more by passion than by income bracket.
Owen says the people who buy his bike frames in Chicago vary widely in how much money they make. “There are a lot of people who don't make much money who spend thousands on a car each year. If you don’t own a car, you might only make $18,000, $20,000 a year, but you can still spend a bunch on bikes.”
He says one recent customer was a doctor who already had a custom frame from Boston-based Independent Fabrications. “He was really keen to have something locally made.”
Another was Jeff Perkins of the 4 Star Courier Collective, a messenger company owned and operated by bike couriers. Like Owen, they never hit a ceiling and abandoned their bikes for adult jobs, they made an adult job out of their bikes. Perkins says they use a car for some deliveries. “We’re asked to haul a lot of heavy random stuff. But the cost and upkeep of a car is so much.”
Perkins says the process of developing the bike with Owen was part of the appeal. “He was interested in doing it, and we liked the idea of working with somebody, seeing the whole process.” They worked out the loads it must carry, and how wide it could be and still remain agile in traffic. And they worked out a payment plan to cover the cost.
“It’s an odd looking bike,” Owen says. “But it’s one of the bikes I like the most. Because it works 40 hours a week, carrying large amounts of crap.”
Owen says he hasn’t actively marketed his frames. “I want to make sure I’m a good solid builder before I jump out there and say ‘I’m going to build you anything you want.’” But he builds 3 to 4 framesets a year under the name Lloyd Cycles. “I spend more time repairing frames than I do building frames,” he adds. “Because I’m the only one in the city that takes in steel frame repair.”
Bike retail and frame fabrication are separate businesses today. “There are economic reasons for that, but I think they should be integral to each other,” Owen says. “At a shop, you repair and build wheels, you replace components and assemble the bike.
“Being able to repair or modify a frame seems to be a logical progression. Someone should be able to come into a bike shop and have all those things done.” And at Blue City Cycles, the bike shop Lloyd and Knipper own at 32nd and Halsted, you can.